We first met Gary Watson of Roadster Productions when we were wandering the booths at Comicpalooza. What drew us over to his table when we had a world of comics, horror films and quidditch to choose from was the poster adorning his booth.
On it was the image of a clenched fist defiantly thrust upward. Tattooed along the inside of the wrist was a bar code, and below that the quote, "How do you fight a state that has God on its side?" In the background the Texas flag fluttered, but the Lone Star had been replaced with a crucifix. Needless to say, it got our attention.
Watson was promoting his short film After Twilight, the tale of a young librarian who joins the resistance movement against an evangelical Christian theocracy formed by a secessionist Texas. The film was finished in 2004, featuring production work from the always excellent Sophia Vassilakidis. Watson's day job involves cranking out film work for nonprofit organizations so the production values are much higher than your average indie film, and it certainly shows.
The world of After Twilight is a bitterly oppressed black and white image of our own beloved Houston. The secular laws we currently live under have been replaced with a nightmarish array of literal translations of rules from scripture, and dissenters are hauled away to re-education camps to be purified... if they survive, of course.
Underneath it all there is the struggle by the underground resistance. Their work is primarily the preservation of knowledge and art suppressed under the regime, particularly things like science books and literature like Harry Potter. What bothers Watson is how eerily the world he's envisioned is starting to mirror the world that we inhabit.
"We have a governor who has filled the board of education with as many creationists as he can, who hold giant prayer rallies," said Watson. "None of that was happening when I wrote out the film or when we shot it, but more and more it's like Rick Perry is using our work like some kind of guide."
Obviously we're quite a distance yet away from stoning adulterous women in the street... at least we hope so. However, Watson isn't worried so much about his specific personal apocalypse happening as he is about the gray area that happens before. The title of the film actually comes from a quote by Justice William O. Douglas. It reads...
"As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air -- however slight -- lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness."
For Watson, the fear that we may be entering the twilight is small, but there. However, he is quick to point out that After Twilight is not meant to be an anti-religious or an anti-Christian film. It is simply an expression of the logical extrapolation of extremism.
A feature version of After Twilight has been in the fundraising stages since the short film's release. In the meantime, Watson has partnered with Austin artist Douglas Brown to flesh out the remainder of the story in a six-issue comic book. The first issue will hit shelves and be available from AfterTwilightComic.com on October 25.
We had a chance to pick up a press copy of the first issue. Watson's dialogue has matured greatly since the making of the short. The sometimes stilted verbal interactions were the only flaw in an otherwise stellar cinematic experience. Now the story flies off the pages with a frenzy, all aided by Brown's art.
Brown lovingly curves up the otherwise matronly dressed women of After Twilight, giving the characters an urgent sense of repressed carnality. It's not so much a feeling of sex as an acknowledgement of complete sensual imprisonment. Even during a horrifying scene where the state finds an ingenious and more efficient way to carry out that stoning of adulteresses we mentioned earlier, the cut, bruised and shorn woman seems to scream with her entire body against the revocation of the flesh demanded in Texas's tyranny.
After Twilight continues to evolve, and Watson still has designs on bringing his vision to a major cinematic release. The short film itself has been something of a mixed blessing. On one hand it has been well received where it has been shown. For instance, it was specifically requested to be part of the Texas Freethought Convention earlier this month. Watson has even shown it to a Bible class at their invitation.
"It was a wonderful way to talk about the issue," he said. "It gave us all a chance to see exactly why the separation between church and state exists. How it protects both of those institutions."
In the film, leaders of the regime are shown growing increasingly worried about how their perfect society has failed to eliminate social evils, and the increasingly brutal methods being used to hold the state together. Their perfect Christian society rots from the necessities of state enforcement of their belief structure.
On the other hand, After Twilight's running length has kept it out of a number of festivals that could have generated some interest and investment. At just over half an hour, the film simply requires too much room in a short-film festival schedule. Most organizers would much prefer to have six five-minute films than one 30-minute one.
So Watson turned to comic books to expand his reach. Self-publication has never been easier, and even with all the resources that he commands through his studio, filming can be prohibitively expensive. Many people self-publish comics to moderate reach. Terrance Zdunich is keeping us enthralled with The Molting, but like any other DIY work it remains extremely work-intensive to promote.
"I like doing it that way, though," Watson told us. "I like that we get to interact with people so easily and openly through the Facebook. It's a slow process...maybe one person a day will find us, maybe ten, but every time someone does, we get to personally communicate with them. It tends to make them more interested in what we're doing."
The online, grassroots style of building momentum was important to the creation of After Twilight. It wasn't long after the events of 9/11 that America became much more aware of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the horrid conditions their execution of religious extremism had enforced on the people. The Internet opened Watson up to a whole world of rising religious extremism right here at home.
The Texas Freedom Network is an activist group that was founded in 1995 that Watson follows closely. The group is dedicated to monitoring encroaching religious legislation in order to help raise awareness among the state's population about actions that may cross the church/state divide. They've opposed textbook censorship and government-backed faith-based initiatives. Opposition is inspired by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as well as Article 1, Section 6 of the state constitution.
Such policies are increasingly frequent, and could be seen as the darkening that After Twilight warns about. Rick Perry has jokingly mentioned secession in speeches, and as a presidential candidate he obviously has no desire to lose his home state should he attain the presidency. Nonetheless, any parking lot in the city will bear at least one vehicle with a pro-secessionist bumper sticker.
Perry's prayer rally was also met with great scorn by Watson and the production staff of After Twilight. They posted a scathing video response after attending the event, and expressed disquiet over Perry's connection to the American Family Association and the New Apostolic Movement.
The latter group has stated that the tsunami that struck Japan earlier this year was God's punishment for the Japanese Emperor copulating with a sun goddess, accusing the Democratic party of being agents of Satan, and "working with the administrative, judicial and legislative branches of the government, the way they are, but to have as many kingdom-minded people in influence in each one of these branches of government as possible so that the blessings of the kingdom will come," as stated by C. Peter Wagner in an NPR interview.
Likeminded... that was the last question we asked Watson when we toured his studio. We wanted to know why a group of people would be so intensely dedicated to forcing people to adhere to a single set of beliefs.
"I think they are honestly afraid that someone will make them follow Sharia law, or keep them from worshipping," said Watson. "So they push back against that perceived threat and end up becoming the very thing that they fear."
Watson and the production team of After Twilight will celebrate the release of issue No. 1 at an Open House at his studio on Tuesday October 25 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Vine Street Studios, 1113 Vine Suite 121, Houston.
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